Japan and Hong Kong Trip 2012

Hello all! :) So I got back from Tokyo and Hong Kong last week and what can I say other than: W.O.W. I am officially in LOVE with Tokyo, I adored it. Really, so rarely have a been to a city/place in a long time which has blown me away so much. I adored everything about it - ok, actually strike that, maybe not quite the amount of people in train stations (!!!???! What the?! = sheer madness!!!) but I fell in love with the people, culture (at least from the tiny amount I saw in Tokyo), friendliness, ability to queue.. yes I did just write that, how refreshing is it to go somewhere and not be pushed and shoved left, right and centre?! To the food, cleanliness, order, sense of perfection and just overall I have a new favourite city, I can't wait to return. I feel blessed my husband Mick will quite possibly be flying back and forth here on business in the coming 12 months, so I will tag along again most definitely.

Hong Kong was a blast too, I will be totally honest and say whilst I found it a fun, vibrant, hectic place to visit, (yes I admit I did visit Marks and Spencers and I did buy too much UK expat food *cringe*) but maybe the fact I had to speak a totally different language in Japan made it a more fun place to be. I managed to master: "Hello", "Thank you very much", "Do you speak English?!", "Sorry I don't speak Japanese" and most importantly; "Can I have that one?" in Japanese, Oh and also I somehow after way too many plum wines was able to direct a totally non-English speaking/understanding Japanese taxi driver half way across the city back to our hotel, all in Japanese! I was incredibly proud of myself and overall great fun. I look forward to part 2 of a WKA Japan post in the next 6 months hopefully and also most importantly, my upcoming Japan/HK food feature which will be up by the end of next week - due to packing (see end note re heading away), work all last week etc etc (blah blah) aka 'the usual', I have had to hold off on including the recipes I planned to feature on here today, but I will have them up by the end of next week.

Anyway I really hope you enjoy the pics below.

My new favourite food ~ Yakitori. I loved these really simple, rustic and authentic Yakitori bars which were situated across from where I was staying. We ate for 2 or 3 nights, enjoying the skewered meats with cold beers and copious amounts of salted chilli edamame beans.

The incredible food department in Mitsukoshi Department Store Ginza... Fancy a AUD$257.00 Melon anyone? (!!?) or you could have two mangoes for the same price...

Hibiya Park

This beautiful park was located directly across from the hotel I stayed at in Tokyo. It was a sublime place to wander around in the afternoon, so incredibly peaceful and serene. The day I walked around it, was a hot one so I didn't manage to cover as much of the park as initially anticipated, but I got a great thrill to spot my first Japanese maples trees down near the water's edge, that's when you know you are officially in Japan! (Along with the many black raven birds which are the same size as a small dog!)

Tsukiji Fish Markets

I was incredibly fortunate to be staying literally only a 2 minute walk from a restaurant which belonged to a good friend of my cousin ~ the latter of whom lived in Tokyo for years. 'Andy's' is located under the Yamanote elevated tracks, 1 minute walk from Yurakucho or Ginza station. Apart from enjoying a a great, authentically Japanese meal with some friends on the Friday night, Andy kindly offered to show me around the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market the following Tuesday morning. He's still pretty much the only Westerner who buys fish daily at the markets so it was great to be able to head over and get somewhat of a personalised tour. Tsukiji is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world handling over 2,000 tons of marine products every day.

I had been told that most people go to buy their fish at the unearthly hour of 4am *shudder* but thankfully Andy asked me to meet him at 8.45 as believe it or not, this is the only time Westerners are allowed into the wholesale section of the fish markets as before this time the vendors are too busy trying to make a sale to be bothered by tourists stopping to take snaps and in turn, hinder sales taking place. A few years back the fish markets were seen as a good tourist opportunity and tourists were welcomed into the markets to take photos, potter about etc., however guidelines and restrictions were not set in place for such and upon finding tourists sitting on large frozen ($$) tuna having holiday snaps taken, it was decided the number of tourists allowed into Tsukiji each day should be limited to approx. 120 per day.

I asked Andy if the vendors would have an issue with me taking photos and he admitted they generally don't like it as this is not a venue for glossy shots; it's a nitty, gritty, dirty, messy fish-fest and the main concern of the sellers is to make a sale, not be distracted by Westerners with their cameras snapping away. He asked that I wait to take shots at each of his vendors until they had mutually agreed upon a sale, then I could snap away to my hearts content.

I found it a utterly mad place, from when you're not trying to get your leg taken off by one of the many (many) Japanese workers scooting around the place on their scary looking little wheely cars* (seriously they don't stop, you've got to make sure you are out of the way and they come at you from all angles LOL ) to the sheer volume of fish and abundance of bizarre varieties, I literally had no iota what half the species were and a lot in turn only went to confirm I'm not the world's biggest crustacean fan!

Andy selected his day's worth of fish and we went about our way stopping off at the external markets or 'Housewife' market as Andy called them, basically a place where housewives can go and select their fish and other groceries without having to venture into the main market itself. It was great pottering about the little streets and again a good reality check in regards to being in Tokyo.

Note*: Aforementioned 'scary looking little wheely car' they zoom about like billio...

Andy's restaurant:

Andy took me through the somewhat messy, gutting and cleaning of a large Yellowfin Tuna. I'm not one to shy away from blood and guts so I really was fascinated at the whole process. The cleaned fish then got passed onto his head chef for filleting for sashimi along with the the daily quota of fresh squid. Below: king crab bought at the market being steamed back at the restaurant.

Suginami, Shinjinku/Golden Gai and Shibuya

I was really fortunate that during this trip a good Irish friend of mine; Conor was in Japan teaching English. It was wonderful to get to see him as this normally only happens when I return to Dublin, so we spent a good few nights catching up; drinking way too many Asahi beers and singing really really bad karaoke (!) Conor had been in Japan only just over two months but I am totally indebted to him for showing us some really cool places in Tokyo which we would probably never have found on our own.

First off was an amazing little bar located in the Suginami area which is located in the western part of the ward area of Tokyo. After an initial walk from the train station past a few neon-lit buildings it all suddenly turned rather residential and you very much felt like you were well away from the big city as you meandered down its little house-lined streets. I honestly was a little confused as to where on earth were were going until all of a sudden Conor showed us into this amazing little 'bar' in which there was only 5 people. It was insanely authentic Japanese and it really felt like we had just walked into an elderly Japanese lady's sittingroom... She and the 4 regulars at the bar were so welcoming and ushered us over to the only little table at the back of the room *note, the whole place measured about 3 x 6 metres. We were asked to remove our shoes whilst we clambered up onto the raised seating area and graciously tried to stuff our legs under the low table... this was of particular vocal hilarity to two of the elderly men as they watched my husband Mick trying in vain to get all his legs under the table due to being 6'2" ;)

Suddenly out of nowhere I was served a WHOPPING portion of warm sake, a drink I'll be  honest I really haven't grown to love all that much. I tried it both warm and cold during this trip and can attest it's not quite my tipple. I don't know what it is, but it sort of tastes and smells a bit like sour milk and has an odd aftertaste I'm really not all that mad on. Anyway for respect-sake I tried my best to down as much of it as I could (with the help of a decent glug from both Conor and Mick to help save face). Before we knew it the owner of the bar (aka the lady pictured below) was frying up food on the little grill behind the bar and ushering it over to us as a gesture of her hospitality, all the while she and the other 4 guests nattered incessantly at us in Japanese, throwing in the odd belly laugh all the while we had utterly no iota what they were saying to us, so in that instance you smile, laugh back and look thoroughly part of the goings on! LOL It was a fabulous experience and one I'll never forget.

The food she gave us was so wonderful, fresh green capsicum fried from what I could tell in soy sauce, black pepper and black sesame. It was paired with fresh eggplant grilled in the same manner; really simple, flavoursome proper-style drinks nibbles. I tried out a recipe when I got home last week and it tasted really similar, I didn't get a shot but in short; cut up a green capsicum discarding the white membrane, seeds and stalk, cut green flesh into thick strips and char-grill on a hot griddle pan sprayed with a little olive oil, after 2-3 minutes splash with a good glug of soy sauce, season with freshly ground black pepper and scatter with black sesame seeds, serve warm.

The reason we were going to Suginami area was Conor had told me a few days beforehand, he was going to bring me to "The best Bar in the World"... I was intrigued... When we left the above cosy spot, we walked 3 or 4 doors up to a place called 'October'. It was a small bar, very atmospheric and literally like the Japanese pub version of the movie 'High Fidelity' ~ aka I have never seen so many vinyl records in such a small place. Being a huge music fan, I was optimistic for a good few hours ahead. I had no iota we were about to encounter, quite possibly the biggest music head in all of Japan, holy moly, this owner/dj knew his stuff inside out and had quite possibly, every record ever pressed... (!).

For most of our time there we were the only patrons and sat chatting happily. After 20 minutes or so we started to notice every time one of us mentioned a country; place; band; concert or musical love etc etc., all of a sudden a song relating to such or the band itself would come on the speakers. This guy ~ Hirovuki Endo, was secretly listening in whilst pottering quietly behind his bar waiting for any given opportunity to place music we wanted to hear or reminisced about. It was fantastic! it also turned out oddly enough and much to my delight I had met Japan ~ and if not the world's biggest RIDE fan - to explain, when I was a teenager, for about 4 years, my most favourite band in the world was an English Indie band called RIDE. Whilst there were plenty on RIDE fans 'back in the day' I rarely meet them nowadays. Hirovuki had the largest RIDE album collection I have ever seen and put mine to shame. I think we both got a kick out of meeting each other for that purpose alone and how amazing to find someone so utterly passionate about their love of music. October bar is well worth a visit if you are in Tokyo, it's literally a 30 min train ride west on the Chūō Main Line.

Next we were on to Golden Gai ~ quite possibly my favourite part of Tokyo during my short stay. A myriad of miniature streets and laneways full one after the next of teeny, tiny bars all of which only hold about 6 people. Seemingly a lot are themed, so one might be all about English Literature or the next all about American Film, I was told a lot of artists, musicians, Japanese celebs etc go to have a drink and discuss their hobbies/favourite topics. We ended up in a punk one, pretty crazy and really unique, oh and also a pretty tacky Karaoke one which was a bit larger ~ i.e. it could hold 20 or so people, but quite possible one of the funniest, best night so my life in a long time. Did I mentioned Japanese business men on a Friday night after way too much Saki and beer letting off steam, are utterly hilarious and great fun to be around?!

The following is a selection of snaps taken during the week in Tokyo, mainly around Ginza where I was staying.

After a 7 night stay in Tokyo, it was onto Hong Kong for a few days where really we just kicked back and pottered about the immediate area we were staying and over near Hollywood road and Queens road where I found some interesting food and veggie shops/stalls.. If you are looking for a hotel in HK central I can highly recommend the Mandarin Oriental. Really in the middle of it all on HK island, beautiful rooms, fantastic service and good bars. It's only a 5 minute walk to most things and a short train ride (with a station literally outside the door) to Causeway Bay, Kowloon etc...

Tomorrow I am off to Hamilton Island in Queensland for 4 days to shoot a very exciting  job which I really look forward to featuring on the blog my return. I've had a fairly hectic week work-wise since my return from Asia last week so I will be pushing back picking out a winner for the Maggie Beer Book and also the Gourmet Grocers/WKA competition winner for the USA food hamper. Apologies for the delay on this but I will promise to announce both next Monday (July 9th).  I will also be giving details on a fantastic wine giveaway and the July Book too.

Until then I hope you enjoy the above post and photos and will be back with some recipes inspired by the above next week and the above competition winners etc.

BTW would be great to hear from you via the comments below as to which is your favourite photo out of all the above. It's for a little printing project I am doing. Tks :)


Katie xx